TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Michael Moore isn't the apologetic type.
He has no regrets over proclaiming during last year's Academy Awards ceremony that George W. Bush is a "fictitious president . . . sending us to war for fictitious reasons."
But he does have a small confession: that rip-roaring acceptance speech after his Bowling for Columbine won the Oscar for best documentary almost went undelivered.
"Every bone in my body wanted to just thank them, blow them a kiss and walk off the stage," Moore confides, stirring whipped cream into a steaming cup of hot chocolate. "This was my night! How many times in your life do you win an Oscar?
"And yet that good Catholic schoolboy inside me is saying, `You know, this life is not about being honoured with golden statues.' . . . In the end, I have to do what is right as a human being and a citizen. But I was fighting it. I'm a normal person, you know."
And that's one thing Moore wants to make clear -- that he's a regular guy.
He sure looks like one -- glasses, beard, brown hair flecked with grey, jeans-and-baseball-cap ensemble and pudgy build.
But appearances can be misleading. There's nothing ordinary about this formerly obscure journalist becoming an international celebrity, nor about having two best-selling books and an Oscar-winning film in the same year -- all of which had people rolling with laughter one minute and fuming with righteous indignation the next.
That delicate balance of humour and anger is Moore's best weapon. In books, films, speeches and on his website, the 49-year-old gadfly fires rhetorical fusillades at conservative politicians, corporate executives and assorted "stupid white men," grinning all the while.
Now he's working on another film, Fahrenheit 9-11, due for release late this summer. As the title implies, the subject is terrorism. It's also a reference to Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury's classic science fiction novel about censorship.
The film will feature Moore on a quest for answers to troubling questions -- a recurring role he first assumed in Roger & Me, the hilarious and heartbreaking 1989 tale of woe in his hometown of Flint, Mich., after General Motors closed 11 auto manufacturing plants and laid off 33,000 workers.
"You know the question a lot of people were asking after Sept. 11 -- 'Why do they hate us?' The question I want to ask is, 'Why DON'T they hate us?' -- and then take my camera around the world a bit and show what's done in our name," Moore says.
Terrorism is wrong, he says. But when he has finished cataloguing misdeeds by the U.S. government and corporations, viewers will feel lucky their country hasn't drawn more attacks.
And why, he continues, are Americans so obsessed with terrorism in the first place? Sept. 11 was horrific. But the typical citizen has almost no chance of encountering terrorists.
He accuses the Bush administration of exaggerating the danger to frighten voters into giving the president another term: "It is one of the most successful lies ever perpetrated upon a people."
Such gloves-off rhetoric is one reason why Moore's critics -- and they are legion -- don't get the joke. One of many websites devoted to him is labelled Michael Moore Hates America.
"He is beyond mean-spirited. He is hate-filled," said Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Centre in Arlington, Va.
Nope, Moore replies. Those labels are more fairly applied to purveyors of right-wing invective such as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly. But he admits they all belong to the same fraternity of opinion merchants flogging political screeds.
The difference, Moore says, is liberals such as Al Franken and Molly Ivins champion justice for the underprivileged while their conservative counterparts promote smug self-centredness.
Besides, Moore says, "We're funny. What's so funny about Ann Coulter? Even if you agree with her politically, I've never seen a conservative sit there and go, `Ho, there's a real knee-slapper!' "
Moore admires Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, Charlie Chaplin and George Carlin -- humorists with deep resentment of social and political wrongs -- and wants audiences to come away entertained but hopping mad, ready to act.
"A lot of the best comedians are very angry people. They find a way to use their sense of humour sort of like a release valve on a pressure cooker. I've always been that way."
His mix of humour and anger goes back at least to 1972. A high school senior, he was elected "class comic" by his peers the same year that he got so fed up with things at school that he ran for the board of education -- and won. He served a four-year term.
Instead of following family tradition and working at a GM plant, he worked for an alternative newspaper, the left-wing magazine Mother Jones and a Ralph Nader organization before returning home to produce Roger & Me.
Over the next decade, he turned out three other films, had a couple of short-lived TV series and wrote his first book: Downsize This! Random Threats From an Unarmed American, a 1996 bestseller. He later wrote another satirical work, Stupid White Men, which stirred a tempest even before its release.
The book was to be published in fall 2001. But HarperCollins held off after the Sept. 11 attacks, fearing its irreverent tone and Bush-bashing would offend readers.
Amid complaints of censorship by Moore and his fans, the book was finally released in February 2002. Stupid White Men quickly became a bestseller and remained atop the lists last year, when it was joined by a follow-up, Dude, Where's My Country?
Spinsanity, an Internet-based watchdog that claims to sniff out misleading political rhetoric, says Moore uses "lies, distortions, and nonsensical arguments to mask cheap attacks and promote his own political agenda."
Moore used to shrug off the attacks, but more recently he has taken pains to defend his accuracy. Posted on his website are police reports and other documents that support assertions in Bowling for Columbine.
"I have a staff of researchers, and I have two lawyers consecutively go through the entire book and movie, tear it apart, try to find something wrong with it. If I say something is a fact, it is a fact."
Katrina vanden Huevel, editor of The Nation, regards Moore as a valuable counterweight to the likes of Limbaugh.
"This is his moment," vanden Huevel said. "Scandalous corporate abuses, economic decline across the heartland . . . these are his issues, and he speaks to them in humorous and effective terms."
© 2004 Bell Globemedia Inc.